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Defining Vocabulary in Context

ometimes in your reading, you come across words or phrases that are unfamiliar to you. You might
be lucky and have a dictionary handy to look up that word or phrase, but what if you don’t? How
can you understand what you’re reading if you don’t know what all of the words mean? The
answer is that you can use the rest of the passage, the context, to help you understand the new words.
in Context
An active reader looks up unfamiliar words. But what if you don’t have
a dictionary? In a testing situation (or, for that matter, if you’re reading
on the bus), you almost certainly won’t be able to look up words you
don’t know. Instead, you can use the context to help you determine the

Finding Meaning from Context
The following paragraph is about one of our nation’s favorite pastimes, reality TV. Read it carefully, marking it
up as you go—but do NOT look up any unfamiliar words or phrases in a dictionary.


Most reality TV shows center on two common motivators: fame and money. The
shows transform waitresses, hairdressers, investment bankers, counselors, and
teachers, to name a few, from obscure figures to household names. A lucky few
successfully parlay their 15 minutes of fame into celebrity. Even if you are not
interested in fame, you can probably understand the desire for lots of money.
Watching people eat large insects, reveal their innermost thoughts to millions of
people, and allow themselves to be filmed 24 hours a day for a huge financial
reward makes for interesting viewing. Whatever their attraction, these shows are
among the most popular on television, and every season, they proliferate like
weeds in an untended garden. The networks are quickly replacing more tradi-
tional dramas and comedies with reality TV programs, which earn millions in
advertising revenue. Whether you love it or hate it, one thing is for sure—reality
TV is here to stay!
As you read, you may have circled some words
that are unfamiliar. Did you circle obscure and prolif-
erate? If so, don’t look them up in a dictionary yet. If
you do a little detective work, you can determine their
definitions by looking carefully at how they are used
in the paragraph.
What Does Obscure Mean?
Start with obscure. How is this word used?
The shows transform waitresses, hairdressers,
investment bankers, counselors, and teachers, to
name a few, from obscure figures to household
Even if you have no idea what obscure means,
you can still learn about the word by how it is used, by
examining the words and ideas surrounding it. This is
called determining word meaning through context.
Like detectives looking for clues at a crime scene, we
must look at the passage for clues that will help us
define this word.
So, given the sentence we have here, what can we
tell about obscure? Well, since the shows transform
waitresses, hairdressers, investment bankers, coun-
selors, and teachers from one position—obscure figures,
to another position—household names, that immedi-
ately tells us that an obscure figure and a household
name are two different things.
Furthermore, we know from the sentence that
the people in question are involved in typical, everyday
jobs (waitresses, hairdressers, bankers, etc.) and that
from this position, they are transformed into house-
hold names, which means they achieve some level of
fame and notoriety. Now you can take a pretty good
guess at the meaning of obscure.
1. Before they become household names, the
waitresses, hairdressers, investment bankers,
counselors, and teachers are
a. famous and notorious.
b. unknown and undistinguished.
c. unique and distinctive.
The correct answer, of course, is b. It certainly
can’t be a, because we know that these people are not
yet famous. The reality shows will make them famous,
but until that happens, they remain obscure. Answer c
doesn’t really make sense because we know from the
passage that these people are waitresses, hairdressers,
investment bankers, counselors, and teachers. Now,
these are all very respectable jobs, but they are fairly
common, so they wouldn’t be described as unique or
distinctive. Furthermore, we can tell that b is the cor-
rect answer because we can substitute the word obscure
with the word unknown or undistinguished in the sen-
tence and both would make sense.
Review: Finding Facts
Here’s a quick review of what you learned in Lesson 1.
Reality TV has the ability to take ordinary people and
make them famous. However, another reason people
participate in reality TV shows is
2. a. for money.
b. because they feel lucky.
c. because they are bored.
A quick check of the facts in the paragraph will
tell you the answer is a, for money.
What Does Proliferate Mean?
Look again at the sentence in the passage in which
proliferate is used:
Whatever their attraction, these shows are among
the most popular on television, and every season,
they proliferate like weeds in an untended garden.
Again, even if you have no idea what proliferate
means, you can still tell what kind of word it is by the
way it is used. You know, for example, that these shows
proliferate like weeds in an untended garden. Therefore,
you can answer this question:
3. Proliferate is a word associated with
a. growth.
b. reduction.
c. disappearance.
The answer, of course, is growth. How can you
tell? Well, we all know that weeds have a tendency to
grow wherever they can.
Now that you’ve established that proliferate relates
to growth, you can determine a more specific meaning
by looking for more clues in the sentence. The sentence
doesn’t only tell us that these shows proliferate like
weeds. It also tells us that they proliferate like weeds in
an untended garden. Just imagine a neglected garden,
one that has been left to its own devices. Weeds will
begin to grow in every nook and cranny of that garden.
In fact, they’ll quickly take over, to the detriment of the
plants. The phrase “weeds in an untended garden” is
quite descriptive, and as such, it serves as a wonderful
clue. Based on the words and phrases surrounding it,
an active reader should have no problem determining
the meaning of the word proliferate.
4. Proliferate in this passage means
a. decrease, shrink.
b. underestimate, play down.
c. increase, spread at a rapid rate.
d. fail, fall short.


The correct answer, of course, is c, “increase,
spread at a rapid rate.” It can’t be a or d because these
are things associated with reduction, not growth. And
everyone knows that weeds in an untended garden will
grow fast and aggressively. And b is not an appropriate
answer because if you replace proliferate with underes-
timate or play down, it doesn’t really make sense. In
addition, you can tell that c is the right answer because
the rest of the passage provides other clues. It tells you
that reality TV shows are replacing other network pro-
grams, it tells you that they are popular, and it tells you
that they are earning millions of dollars in advertising
revenue. All these clues would indicate that reality TV
shows are spreading and growing in number, not
shrinking or declining. Hence, the meaning of prolif-
erate must be c, “increase, spread at a rapid rate.”

How Much Context Do You Need?
In the previous example, you would still be able to
understand the main message of the passage even if you
didn’t know—or couldn’t figure out—the meaning of
obscure and proliferate. In some cases, however, your
understanding of a passage depends on your under-
standing of a particular word or phrase. Can you
understand the following sentence, for example, with-
out knowing what adversely means?
Reality TV shows will adversely affect traditional
dramas and comedies.
What does adversely mean in this sentence? Is it
something good or bad? As good a detective as you may
be, there simply aren’t enough clues in this sentence to
tell you what this word means. But a passage with more
information will give you what you need to determine
meaning from context.
Reality TV shows will adversely affect traditional
dramas and comedies. As reality TV increases in pop-
ularity, network executives will begin canceling more
traditional dramas and comedies and replacing them
with the latest in reality TV.
5. In the passage, adversely most nearly means
a. mildly, slightly.
b. kindly, gently.
c. negatively, unfavorably.
d. immediately, swiftly.
The correct answer is c, “negatively, unfavorably.”
The passage provides clues that allow you to deter-
mine the meaning of adversely. It tells you that as real-
ity TV becomes more popular, network executives will
cancel more traditional dramas and comedies and
replace them with reality TV programming. So the
meaning of adversely is neither a, “mild or slight,” nor
b, “kindly or gently.” And based on the passage, you
can’t really tell if these changes will be immediate or
swift (d) because the sentence doesn’t say anything
about the exact time frame in which these changes
will occur. Remember, good detectives don’t make
assumptions they can’t support with facts; and there are
no facts in this sentence to support the assumption
that changes will occur immediately. Thus, c is the best
You may also have noticed that adversely is very
similar to adversary. And if you know that an adversary
is a hostile opponent or enemy, then you know that
adversely cannot be something positive. Or, if you know
the word adversity—hardship or misfortune—then
you know that adversely must mean something nega-
tive or difficult. All these words share the same root—
advers. Only the endings change.


Read the following passages and determine the mean-
ing of the words from their context. The answers appear
immediately after the questions.
Although social work is not a particularly lucrative
career, I wouldn’t do anything else. Knowing I’m
helping others is far more important to me than
6. Lucrative means.
a. highly profitable.
b. highly rewarding.
c. highly exciting.
When you are in an interview, try not to show any
overt signs that you are nervous. Don’t shift in your
chair, shake, or stutter.
7. Overt means.
a. embarrassing, awkward.
b. subtle, suggestive.
c. obvious, not hidden.
By the time our staff meeting ended at 8:00, I was
ravenous. I had skipped lunch and hadn’t eaten since
8. Ravenous means
a. like a raven, bird-like.
b. extremely hungry, greedy for food.
c. exhausted, ready for bed.
6. a. The writer says money is not important to
him. If money is not an issue, it is okay that
social work is not highly profitable, that it
doesn’t earn a lot of money.
7. c. Shifting, shaking, and stuttering are all
obvious, not hidden signs of nervousness.
They are not b, subtle or suggestive; and
though they may make the interviewee feel a,
embarrassed or awkward, the signs them-
selves are not embarrassing or awkward.
8. b. Because the writer hadn’t eaten since break-
fast, she is extremely hungry, greedy for food.
She may also be c, exhausted, but the context
tells us that this word has something to do
with eating.

The ability to determine the meaning of unfamiliar
words from their context is an essential skill for read-
ing comprehension. Sometimes, there will be unfa-
miliar words whose meaning you can’t determine
without a dictionary. But more often than not, a care-
ful look at the context will give you enough clues to



Circle any unfamiliar words you come across today and the rest of the week. Instead of looking them
up in a dictionary, try to figure out the meanings of these words from their context. Then, look them up
in a dictionary to make sure you are correct.

Begin a vocabulary list of the words you look up as you work your way through this book. Many peo-
ple feel insecure about their reading and writing skills because they have a limited vocabulary. The more
words you know, the easier it will be to understand what others are saying and to express what you have
to say. By writing down these new words, you’ll help seal them in your memory.
Skill Building until Next Time

hat’s the difference between fact and opinion, and what does it matter, anyway? It matters a great
deal, especially when it comes to reading comprehension.
During your life, you’ll be exposed to a wide variety of literature, ranging from analyti-
cal articles based on cold hard facts to fictional novels that arise wholly from the author’s imagination. However,
much of what you read will be a mixture of facts and the author’s opinions. Part of becoming a critical reader means
realizing that opinions are not evidence; for opinions to be valid, they must be supported by cold, hard facts.
Facts are:

Things known for certain to have happened

Things known for certain to be true

Things known for certain to exist
Opinions, on the other hand, are:

Things believed to have happened

Things believed to be true

Things believed to exist
The Difference
between Fact
and Opinion
To make sense of what you read, you must be able to tell whether
you’re reading fact or opinion. This lesson tells you how to distinguish
what someone knows for certain from what someone believes.

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